AWI Sponsors Groundbreaking Legislation in California to Protect Orcas

California stands poised to be the first state to end captivity of orcas for entertainment purposes. In early March, AWI’s Dr. Naomi Rose joined Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), Blackfish director Gabriella Cowperthwaite, and two former SeaWorld trainers at a press conference on Santa Monica pier to announce the introduction of SB 2140 by Assemblymember Bloom.

The Orca Welfare and Safety Act, as the bill is called, would prohibit the public display of orcas (or killer whales) in the state and retire those currently in captivity in California to less stressful lives in sea pens. Dr. Rose stated at the event: “My experience studying orcas in the wild has led me to conclude that the welfare of these intelligent, wide-ranging, socially complex animals cannot be adequately protected when confined for a lifetime in small, shallow tanks.”

Public awareness concerning the problems associated with orca captivity has blossomed since the airing of Blackfish (reviewed in the Summer 2013 AWI Quarterly) and publication of the book Death at SeaWorld, by David Kirby (reviewed in the Fall 2012 AWI Quarterly). Both chronicle the story of Tilikum, a captive orca who in 2010 killed his long-time trainer, Dawn Brancheau, after killing two other people in separate earlier instances. Captured off the east coast of Iceland and ripped from his family when he was around two years old, Tilikum has spent more than three decades in captivity.

AWI also sponsored a screening of Blackfish at the Crest Theater in Sacramento, followed by a panel discussion with Dr. Rose, actor and bill spokesperson Eric Balfour, and former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove. The event, held on April 7, coincided with the first hearing of the bill on April 8 by the California Assembly’s Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife. The hearing attracted wide attention from media and the public, with people spilling out into the corridor. After hearing testimony from both sides, including Dr. Rose, the committee agreed to a suggestion by the chairman, Anthony Rendon (who had already stated his ethical opposition to keeping large mammals in captivity) to send the bill to “interim study”—a process to allow committee members time to obtain more information on the science associated with orcas and captivity. While we are disappointed that the bill won’t be passed in 2014, we look forward to being part of the interim study process, which we believe will provide further evidence of the need for this bill to become law.